The Key(s) to Successful Time-Outs

Parents and teachers are always on the lookout for new techniques to decrease inappropriate behaviors. If used correctly, the age-old time-out procedure can be the most effective tool in teaching your kiddo to behave. The following strategies will help you clean up the time-out process and make it effective for your children.

Time-Out Strategies

  • Attempt to identify what your child is trying to communicate through their behavior and provide interventions based on the results. Typically, most behaviors are exhibited in order to gain or avoid something in the environment. For example, a child may bite other children because he/she does not have the language to ask for a toy.
  • Follow the “Three Cs” law – the household rules should be clear, concise, and consistent. Pick one or two rules to focus on and make sure they are visibly posted using pictures or words. Children should know exactly what they did in order to receive a time–out, and parents are responsible for making sure that they implement a time-out every time the behavior occurs.
  • After selecting the rules, do not assume that the child knows how to display them. Set up periods during the day to practice the rules with him/her.
  • Implement a positive reward system for following the rules. In order to decrease inappropriate behavior, consequences and rewards need to be in place.
  • Time-outs should only be used when the child is engaging in a behavior during a positive and rewarding activity. For example, a time-out should be implemented if your child hits a sibling during playtime. A time-out should not be implemented if your child throws himself or herself to the ground because a direction was given to clean up their room.
  • Designate a time-out area that is suitable for the child’s age. A two-year-old may not be capable of sitting in a chair for five minutes. A quick removal (e.g. 30 seconds) from the activity to an enclosed area may be the best bet.
  • Make sure the time-out area is not rewarding to the child. For example, most children have toys in their rooms. If you need to use their room for time-outs, the child should not be allowed to play with any items.
  • Forget the “minute per age” rule. Release the child from time-out when they exhibit the appropriate behaviors (e.g. quiet mouth and body) for a short period of time.
  • Distinguish between the child needing a time-out and the child needing help regulating his/her body. If you notice that your child has difficulty coping with typical situations, you may need to implement other strategies to help them. For example, your child may benefit from having an area in the house to direct them to when they become escalated. Come up with a clever name (e.g. “relaxation station”) and make the area comforting. Create a story with your child using pictures of them in the area. Initially, reinforce the child for using this area when they become upset. Eventually, you can reward them for using this area only for a specified amount of times during the day or week.
  • Limit the amount of attention that you provide while your child is in time out. Posting time-out rules may be helpful to decrease the amount of engagement.
  • Attempt to eliminate power struggles. If your child will not stay in a designated area, you may need to rethink how you are implementing time-out. For example, you may need to select an enclosed area or reset the time when the child attempts to escape.
  • Time-outs can be used in public. Prior to entering a store or restaurant, remind your child of the rules. If they break a rule, a time-out can be given in the actual store or in the car. Don’t be embarrassed – every parent has dealt with a tantrum in public.

Time-outs can be very helpful in eliminating inappropriate behaviors, but they may not be the most effective technique for your child. You can always try other procedures such as earning typical daily activities and toys. Remember that all privileges can be earned, including access to television, video games and the computer. If you are still having difficulty controlling your child’s behavior, don’t be afraid to seek professional help from an applied behavior analyst.